Food additives & nutrients

Additives are used in food to improve the keeping quality of a food by making it last longer on the shelf or in the fridge, or improve the taste or appearance of processed food.

Food additives

Additives are used to:

  • improve the keeping quality of a food by making it last longer on the shelf or in the fridge, for example a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria or a humectant to stop food from drying out
  • improve the taste or appearance of a food, for example by the use of flavours, thickeners and colours.

Another benefit of food additives is that consumers can be offered a wider choice of foods. Many processed foods contain additives. Some common examples are bacon, margarine, ice cream and bread.

Some people believe that because food additives are chemicals they should be banned. However, everything in the world, including us and the food we eat, is made of chemicals. Air, water, glucose and salt are chemicals in the same way that food additives are.

Many food additives occur naturally, such as red colour from beetroot (Beet red), and purple colour from grape skins (anthocyanins). These colours can be extracted and added to other foods.

Some food additives found in nature can be manufactured, for example, ascorbic acid. Other additives are manufactured but not found in nature, such as aspartame, which is used to replace sugar.

Controlling the use of additives

Before an additive can be used in foods, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) carries out a safety assessment. All additives go through a safety assessment process. FSANZ checks that the food additive is safe at the level proposed to be used, and that there are good technological reasons for the use of the additive. If FSANZ agrees that a food additive should be permitted, approval of government Ministers is sought. It is only after Ministerial approval that a food additive can be used in foods. The Food Standards Code (this is the joint food law between Australia and New Zealand) says which additives can be used and in what foods.

Additives and adverse reactions (intolerance, allergies)

A small number of people may have adverse reactions to some food additives, just as some people may be allergic to or have adverse reactions to peanuts, milk or shellfish. Food labelling helps people who are sensitive to certain food additives to avoid them.

Reading the food label

To check what additives are in foods, read the label. All food ingredients, including any additives, must be listed on the label of a food. The ingredients are listed in descending order of ingoing weight. On the label, within the list of ingredients, the class name of the additive will be listed and then the additive name or code number in brackets. For example:

Thickener

(pectin) or

Thickener

(440)

Class name

Additive name

Class name

Code number

Class name

Food additives are grouped into classes according to their function. For example, all colour additives are used to colour food, so are in one group in this booklet. Some food additives have more than one use. See for example Soy Lecithin (number 322). It can be used as an antioxidant, and also as an emulsifier. It therefore has two entries. Where an additive is capable of being classified in more than one class, the most appropriate class name is used on the label of a food.

In some cases there are optional or alternative class names not listed in this booklet that can be used on the label. For example, some thickeners can also be called modified starches. Some additives do not have a legally defined class name. The group of additives that function as propellants have no legally defined class name, so are listed on the label by the specific name of the additive, with no reference to a class name.

Code numbers

Most food additives have code numbers. The numbers listed in this booklet are part of an international numbering system. Code numbers use less space on labels than names of additives. They also help avoid the confusion caused by some additives having more than one name, or additives with similar names. Enzymes and flavours are not required to be specifically named, or identified with code numbers. These additives are required to be labelled by their class name only. Some code numbers may have an ‘E’ in front of them. This means that the food is labelled for the European Union market.

Nutrients

Nutrients are water, fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and trace elements found naturally in food. These are necessary for maintaining life, bone and tissue growth and repair, and keeping you in good health. Nutrient deficiencies and/or excess can lead to abnormal growth and development, serious medical conditions, and poor health.

Nutrients are permitted to be added to some foods:

  • to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies in some groups of people which may be caused by low intakes of a particular nutrient
  • where research supports an increased level of a nutrient for a specific health benefit
  • to make those foods that are considered to be substitutes for a primary food similar in nutritional content
  • to add back those nutrients that may have been lost through processing
  • to improve the shelf life of a product.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are not classified as additives under the Food Standards Code. Some vitamins and minerals have a code number however, as they are also used as food additives. An example of this is Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which is an antioxidant but can also be added as a vitamin to some foods. Those additives that can also function as a vitamin or mineral are identified with an asterisk.